26/10/2011 10:57 BST | Updated 26/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Simple Solutions will Help Speed Recovery for Ethiopian Families

The crisis gripping the Horn of Africa continues to devastate families and communities. Twelve million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti are suffering food shortages and the worst drought in sixty years.

The needs are many and the scale of the crisis is daunting. But there is evidence that low cost, sustainable solutions which provide basic services such as safe water and sanitation are helping some communities cope.

The drought is affecting 4.6 million in Ethiopia where WaterAid has worked since 1983. As if a major drought were not enough, the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments, to their credit, are also hosting hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees.

In response, Governments and aid agencies are providing humanitarian and emergency relief to the millions of people now in desperate need. The UK Department for International Development is committing over £95 million, the United States USAID is providing $600 million and the EU €700 million.

WaterAid, like many NGOs, governments and UN agencies active in the region is also providing assistance. We are focusing on sustainable water and sanitation facilities. This dual track approach can help communities in this part of Africa deal with the current crisis as well as be more resilient to future droughts.

Droughts are common in the Horn of Africa because of cyclical weather patterns. But famine should be avoidable even with a drought as severe as this one. A longer term approach that provides sustainable services is crucial in helping communities to become more resilient to the impact of these sever climatic events.

In the drought affected regions of Ethiopia we have found that simple, cost-effective technologies are supplying water and sanitation to local communities. The continued access to these basic services makes them less susceptible to diarrhoea-related diseases and cholera and enables their communities to better withstand the debilitating effects of the drought.

Marisa Okosho lives with his family in Sariti village in Ethiopia where WaterAid runs water, sanitation and hygiene projects. These interventions are not expensive or overly complicated, but they can make a difference when it comes to dealing with droughts when they occur.

"Unlike previous years, we are not so weak and women don't have to walk long distances without food in their stomachs. Diseases in the area have also gone down and children are not getting sick all the time so we don't have to go to the clinic as often. Hopefully, in the future we will be even stronger when fighting the drought."

Simple management of groundwater resources can also help communities maintain more sustainable access to water and sanitation as groundwater is not as susceptible to drought as surface water.

In the Konso region of Ethiopia, sand dams have proved effective. These dams are built across seasonal rivers. When the rains come, water builds up behind the dams, with the sand acting as a basic water filter with the additional benefit that the sand slows down the evaporation, which makes the water available for a longer time. Using a simple hand pump, water can be drawn for household use and even agriculture for several months, enabling a community to withstand a dry season.

Despite these longer term solutions, there is no doubt about the value of humanitarian relief so urgently needed in the region right now. The horrific stories coming from the Horn of Africa are heartbreaking. All too often it's the women and children who are the most vulnerable.

But what we are also finding in some affected regions of Ethiopia is that low cost interventions which provide basic necessities such as water and sanitation enable families and entire communities to be more resilient to droughts and food insecurity.

A sand dam or a rope pump will not, by itself, enable a family in Ethiopia to escape the consequences of a crippling drought, nor will it tackle the underlying problems that create famine and chronic hunger. But these relatively simple solutions are enabling families in Ethiopia right now to confront this crisis better than they would be able to do otherwise. And it will help speed the recovery process for them in the long term.